Memoir of a Snail review – charming, poignant tale of troubled twins

Estimated read time 3 min read

Like Britain’s Nick Park at Aardman, Australian stop-motion film-maker Adam Elliott has shown a natural talent for screenwriting comedy – and for fusing that with the simplicity and directness of his animation style itself, creating a distinctive kind of lovability and pathos and importantly an instinct for the underdog and the outsider. He makes mainstream animation look a bit neurotypical. His 2003 short Harvie Krumpet was an Oscar winner, and Elliot has come to the Annecy animation film festival for the premiere of what’s probably his most ambitious feature-length work yet. It is charming and beguiling, with a strong new personal and even autobiographical strain and, as in the past, he has persuaded A-list voice talent to get involved.

Sarah Snook voices Grace Pudel, who as the story begins is a desperately lonely woman in middle age; she is a reclusive hoarder, surrounded by chaos and snail memorabilia. But she wasn’t always like this. The film introduces us to her life and especially her troubled childhood; and childhood, as her father sagely says, is like being drunk: everyone remembers what you did, except you. She is a twin and very close to her brother Gilbert (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who as a child was a pyromaniac, but only because he wanted to be a fire-breathing street entertainer on the romantic streets of Paris, inspired by their father who was … a stop-motion animator. When grim fate makes them orphans, a callous state system splits the two up, putting Grace and Gilbert on opposite sides of the vast Australian continent.

Gilbert’s foster family are an oppressively cultish religious group who run a fruit business and – like Will Ferrell’s racing driver Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights – they insist on worshipping the “baby Jesus” as opposed to the adult version. Grace is billeted with an upbeat Canberra couple addicted to self-help books and swinging who leave her alone in the evenings while they go off to key parties. Sad little Grace’s only friend is an eccentric but indomitable old lady called Pinky, voiced by Jacki Weaver, who “smells of ginger and secondhand shops” and favours colourful clothes and giant glasses, like a combination of Iris Apfel and The Incredibles’ Edna Mode. And it is Pinky who is to be the central figure in Grace’s life as she makes a dramatic reckoning with her destiny and with her lifelong fetish for snails.

There’s an ingenuousness and innocence to Memoir of a Snail, a family-entertainment approachability that belies a strange intensity. There are some candid hints, through the obviously personal narrative touches, that in this film some very real adult pain and anger is being hidden in plain sight – or, actually, not at all hidden, although the surprising narrative pivot in the ending is something that only adds to how poignant it is. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable watch, and it’s great to see a reference to the BBC TV comedy classic The Two Ronnies, which turns out to have been huge in Australia.


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